A new direction? Or stay the course?
September 27, 2008 12:06 PM   Subscribe

Deciding on a life direction(and paging allkindsoftime, in particular!)

First, a little background: I've worked in Information Technology (mainly networks/tech support/some web design) for about 15 years. My education/work experience is as follows:

1. Small liberal college : freshman year. Completely unprepared, transferred to big university because I couldn't afford said small college, and didn't understand how to navigate financial aid.
2. Big university : Fish out of water, took some classes, and dropped out.
3. Work, work, work.
4. 2000, started new B.S. at DeVry (I know, I know, but I wanted a degree, and they made it easy to work and go to school, and I had some good professors there.) Finished B.S. in 2003.
4. Travelled overseas, fell in love with country and someone there. Lived there part-time (ex. 3 months there, 3 here) from 2002-2006.
5. 2007-8 - divorced (amicably), went back to big university for more work on original degree, now International Studies major. Did very well, but ran out of money. (Cap on loans for undergrad work, DeVry gobbled up almost all of it.)

DILEMMA IS: Ideally, I would like to do some kind of work with a company (non-profit?) overseas, or even teach at the college level someday. I don't know if a grad program would have me, because of the DeVry degree, but I do have a few points in my favor:

- I took the GRE while I was overseas (the paper version, not fun!) and got an 800 on the verbal, something awful on the math (I think around 500), and a 5 for the essay section.
- I speak basic Arabic and an Arabic dialect, plus some French and Spanish.
- I did an internship overseas, and met a lot of useful contacts, which allowed me to...
- ...apply for a Fulbright, which I didn't get (though seems like most colleges have entire departments to help with this, and I was on my own), but it was challenging and worthwhile.
- made other contacts which allowed me to have a relatively popular niche blog on the county/culture, have let that slide a bit since the divorce, though, for privacy reasons

I like my job just fine, and I make decent money - but I'm at an age (35) where I'd like to really try for something that makes me feel excited and inspired. When I'm talking to people (residents or foreigners) about the country/area in question, it makes me feel all charged up. I don't think it's something that will pass, either, since it's been over six years now, and I'm just as interested.

A couple of people suggested the Peace Corps, but others just as vehemently rejected that - pointing out that you can't pick where you're sent to, and it's not a good direction to take. I knew plenty of people in the Corps, true, but they were usually younger, and had entirely different goals.

I wouldn't mind using my IT experience in a new role, either - no need to chuck all that out the window, but I'd rather use it to support what I'm doing, instead of being the primary focus.

So, I think I have a few potential options.

1. Find the money somehow to finish decree at respectable big university, then apply to grad school
2. Apply to grad school directly, mentioning life/work experience, GRE, etc...
3. Apply to non-profits directly (afraid my language skills aren't good enough yet for working directly in-country, though)

Or something I haven't thought of yet?

[Long-time MeFi user, but posting this under a new user name since family/friends know regular one, and I don't want them chiming in, I already know what they think! :) ]
posted by HopperFan to Work & Money (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If you're looking for ways to carry out options 1 or 2, the "intelligence community" (CIA, NSA, their contractors) love people interested in studying languages, especially Arabic who also have IT skills. They also have quite a few scholarship, grant and work study programs for graduate and undergraduate students.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 2:02 PM on September 27, 2008

then apply to grad school...
the stinkers about grad school. don't do the grad school route (and this isn't just your case, these are the general rules) unless...
1) you are incredibly incredibly passionate about your one narrow topic. I don't just mean "country," but rather "models of country's economic meltdown over 19xx-20xx in comparison to van Hoozawatzits theory of ..." blargh.
2) you have an idea what you're planning to do with the degree, and know the degree will help you realize it
3) you have found some way to pay for the degree, that does not involve you fronting the bill. Graduate school is work and you should be paid for that work. (If you are expected to pay for graduate school, it means your chosen degree, your school, or you, are not desirable enough to fund. If you are not desirable enough to fund, how will you get a job in a presumably small market post-graduation?)
4) in a corollary to 1, you have to accept that most grad research doesn't change the world. Someone will disagree with me, I'm sure, but most of the stuff gets forgotten on a dusty library shelf.

So, what are your objectives? Is it the learning? Or is it in-country making-a-difference-ness?

Me, I get the feeling you found an adopted home, you love the language, you want a job eventually, and to work with people there. If this were me, my path would be
1) find IT job in country
2) move to country, improve language skills through IT job
3) use free time for volunteer work with a) local organization and b) international organization or non-profit (so, building in-country network, as well as connections to other places and groups big enough to sponsor a long-term stay in an NGO)
4) if it's still of interest for full-time work, later, quit IT or take work to IT-related NGO you've been working with already.

No debt, better language skills, overseas early.
posted by whatzit at 3:51 PM on September 27, 2008

good advice above. Based upon the information you provided, I vote NO on grad school. It'll cost you a lot of time or money or both, and you don't seem to have anything specific enough in mind.

Oh, and you have no reason to be hung up on your undergrad degree. You have a BS and you have 15 years of experience- no one cares where you went to college. Really.

I did Peace Corps and it was great, but it definitely won't solve your "what do I want to do with my life?" dilemna.

I say move abroad and take an IT job....or look for an IT position at an NGO or some type of non-profit that does a lot of international work.
posted by emd3737 at 7:06 PM on September 27, 2008

Hey buddy. Interesting you should page me, as I'm very much in the same shoes as you right now.

I did complete my degree at a small lib arts school, although I too went in having no idea what I was doing, but I somehow escaped with a Business Marketing / Management degree. Spent about 7 years in the workforce and then my opportunity to travel, while staying in my job, and work directly with a non-profit, kind of fell in my lap.

Before that happened, I had been looking pretty diligently into the non-profits and roles in the areas (geographical) and types of work (supply chain management) that I thought would be a good fit for me. I kept running into one wall in particular however - no matter how good of a professional fit I was for a given role (I was looking at orgs like Samaritan's Purse, International Relief Coalition, World Vision, World Food Program, Save the Children etc.), almost every single position required 3-5 years of field experience in a "developing nation" (kind of the catch-all for places where orgs like that do their development/relief work). I didn't have that, at the time, and the kicker was that I couldn't really find any way to get it.

So it seemed like the only option was to significantly backtrack in my career and essentially go entry-level to get into the industry. The reason they have this 3-5 year requirement is, as I gathered, that they don't want starry-eyed westerners running away from the corporate world on a vacation-type job for a little while, then short-circuiting and running back to their lattes and digital cable. Having 3 years of field experience shows that you've lived there, you can handle the related stresses, and you're at least somewhat committed to the type of work you're doing.

Fortunately, for me, I found a way to get my foot in the door, so to speak, and bring the experience that I already had in industry to the NGO table. I do think I was somewhat the exception to the rule in this instance, however it does prove that it can be done, if you stick with it long enough to find a way to make it happen.

After a year working in about a dozen countries in southern, western, and eastern Africa, I came back to my corporate position, where technically I'm based in NYC but generally work wherever the clients we sell our work to are located (for the most part I've stayed in North America, however we're a global company so there is sometimes international work I can get involved with).

My times abroad affected me significantly - as they seem to have done for you as well - and I know now that I belong back over there. I was showing some of my family members some of the pictures from a couple of my more recent adventures, and my sister observed that I look very happy in the pictures - even of the ones of me at work. She was right - I realized that I was happy over there. I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to be.

I returned to the US planning to go back to grad school for intercultural studies and/or international economics. I had already been looking at a few programs, so I had a general idea of where I wanted to go / what I wanted to study. But then I had an opportunity presented to me, based on my experience at my level in the developing sector, to return and continue in a similar line of work over there. That's still kind of on my plate at the moment, and I feel very much like asking a similar question to yours - should I go back to school and then try to get into this type of work, or should I take the opportunity while I have it now, get the 3 year minimum under my belt, and then re-assess my options (that's what I'm leaning towards, but leaving your family / friends / community / life-as-you-know-it behind is (or at least hopefully should) not an easy decision to make.

So yeah, here we are. I think you've gotten the first step right at the very least - I started by reaching out to others, presenting my options, and asking them to weigh in. Do you have people that you know - people in your life - who can speak to your options? I find that the more people I can talk to, the better points of view I can get. Each person seems to help.

Its good that you have options - you should be thankful for that - I know I am. A lot of people don't, so don't forget what a privileged position you're in. In fact, it seems to me like you might be able to potentially work multiple options at the same time. Given what I've read above, I would encourage you to focus on finding a way to wrap up a degree from a big uni. I certainly wish it weren't the case, but there's kind of a base-level in the world at large, and getting that degree proves that you can function at that level. I've seen this to be true in both the corporate and the development/relief-org levels. Nearly 10 years out of college, I rarely talk of my uni education in job-related discussions anymore, but there is kind of a basic, unspoken assumption that it is there, and it is an area people still look at on your resume. I don't think the necessity of it is, well, necessary, but most of the rest of the world seems to generally disagree with me. I think you'll find that your options widen a great deal once you have that degree in your stable.

That said, why not start applying to the non-profs immediately, and see what comes up? Even if you do decide to pursue the undergrad degree full-time, there's no reason you couldn't find a part-time gig with one of the non-profs, working for them while you study. That's a great way to open up some inroads to future full-time positions, not to mention a great resume builder as well.

I think whatzit has it - unless you know exactly what it is that you want to focus on in your grad work, and where you want to go and what you want to do with it after, it will be hard to get that experience and then jump into the international arena after that. Hell, it would probably be hard enough even if you did have all those lines tied down. I'd lean towards getting the degree or just finding a position and moving over there directly. There is one thing that comes to mind were you to follow whatzit's recommended path - in that instance it is almost certain that you would be hired as a "local" employee - i.e. a resident of that country (regardless of your nationality) and therefore recompensed as a "local" and for all intents and purposes perceived as a "local." Now again, we're getting into something that I wish wasn't so much the case as it is in reality, because there are a lot of very smart and qualified locals in many developing countries. But the non-profit sector generally values "western" experience and education at a level above that of the locals. Ex-pat salary packages are usually significantly higher, and opportunities in general are broadened for those folks. If you're comfortable situating yourself as a local, that's great, go that route, but understand that you may be closing some doors for yourself down the road to potentially work at higher levels and/or in other parts of the world. I hope that makes sense, I've tried to state it in the short case, but it is of course a very broad issue.

I've typed a lot, I hope some of it has been of some use. I'll me-mail you and let you know what route I end up going in the next couple of months here. Finding your passion and what you're supposed to do with your life isn't supposed to be easy, but good on you for having the wherewithal to seek it out. Keep working at it.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:38 AM on September 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

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